On the morning of January 10, a small girl in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district posed for a picture wearing a purple shalwar kameez, her eyes large, her gaze intent. Just eight years old, she was not afraid of venturing into the forest near her home in Rasana village. That day, too, she went into the forest to graze her family’s horses. But she did not return.

For seven days, her family, neighbours and the police searched for her in the forest. On January 17, they found her body lying face down at a spot they had passed many times over the previous week. Pictures showed a lifeless figure, her face bruised black and blue, her half-shut eyes swollen.

Two sets of pictures then floated up online: the one taken on January 10 and those of her battered body, still in the bright purple shalwar kameez. They were circulated by people from the nomadic Bakarwal community that the child belonged to. So that “everyone comes to know about this merciless act”, said Mohammad Yusuf, her father. He alleged that his daughter was raped and killed. “There were bite marks on her face and shoulders,” he said. “The bones in her body were broken.”

The family said but for the “police’s indifference” during the week the child was missing, they could have “found her alive”. “We told the police that we knew the jungle but still couldn’t find her,” said Ali Jan, the child’s uncle. “Why did they not search the sheds and houses on time?”

Jan alleged the family had to struggle even to bury her in a piece of land they had bought to use as graveyard more than a decade ago. The grandson of the previous owner of the land threatened the family, he alleged. “They came out with hockey sticks and threatened to dig out the seven graves that are already there. We went, overnight, to a relative’s village and buried her on his land.”

Widespread protests

The news about the child’s murder triggered outrage in Jammu province, where Muslims, especially the nomadic Gujjars and Bakarwals, have been feeling uneasy in the face of growing hostility from Hindutva groups and government indifference.

On January 19, protests were held in several places across the Jammu region, accompanied by warnings of an agitation if the government did not arrest the culprits soon. In Jammu city, student groups, from across communities, have held multiple candlelight vigils and protests.

By late Friday, a hurriedly issued police statement said the case had been solved with the arrest of a 15-year-old, who had confessed his crime. “The accused kidnapped the minor girl and put her in a nearby cow shed at village Rasana, where he attempted to rape her,” the statement read, “and when she resisted, he killed her by way of strangulation and then threw stones upon face/head of the victim for defacement.”

Mohammad Suleiman Choudhary, senior superintendent of police in Kathua, said they are investigating “to establish motives” and find out what happened during the week before the body was found. Besides kidnapping, Choudhary said, an attempt to murder charge has been added to the first information report for now. “It is clear that it is an attempt to rape and when she resisted, [the suspect] said he killed her. We are waiting for her medical reports to add further charges,” he added.

Political resonance

The murder and the ensuing protests have now acquired political resonance. On January 18, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti took to Twitter to express outrage over the incident and assured expeditious investigation.

But her predecessor Omar Abdullah criticised Mufti for not making a statement of assurance in the Assembly.

Earlier that day, the incident had led to an uproar in the Assembly, with opposition parties demanding the suspension of the local police officials.

Congress legislators Vikar Rasool and Ghulam Mohammad Saroori alleged that “minorities were not safe” in the Jammu region. Not satisfied with Parliamentary Affairs Minister Abdul Rehman Veeri’s assurance of a speedy investigation, the opposition parties staged a walkout.

Members of the Bakarwal community, however, were not moved and said the apparent outcry rubbed salt into their wounds. “They are playing politics over this,” a family member said. “None of the political leaders from our community came to visit us. For them our only value is to cast votes.”

Anwar Choudhary, head of the All Tribal Coordination Committee, an organisation of the nomadic community formed to confront the wave of hostility in the region, said the government’s indifference had emboldened crimes against the Gujjar community. “Today what has been done to this girl is unacceptable and we blame the state government for it,” he said. “The government’s indifference has enabled and emboldened attacks against us.”

In the Assembly, the police had been accused of taking a “casual approach” to the case. Police officials, however, said the legislators’ protests were driven by political calculations. With nearly 10 lakh members, and the state’s fastest growing population, Gujjars and Bakarwals are an important vote bank. In Jammu, a police official claimed, “it has become relevant to tap it because of perceived negative policies”.

On January 19, the government ordered a magisterial enquiry into the incident and, a day later, it informed the Assembly that the local station house officer had been suspended.

Breaking the silence

The Kathua girl’s murder came just two weeks after a sessions court in Srinagar awarded the death penalty to a man convicted of raping and murdering a six-year-old girl. In its judgement, the court noted:

“There is in fact a steep rise in sexual offences against women and children. And when child is the victim of such horrendous act, then the court has to speak on the manner that matches with the collective conscious of the society and also to give deterrent message to those who carry the same traits to face the fate which any perpetrator of such crime will face from the court of law.”

Yet, the judgement failed to garner much attention, even in the Valley. But this Kathua murder seems to have triggered a new public debate. In a state where much of the public discourse revolves around the political and armed conflict, this mobilisation over a social issue is significant.

Bashir Manzar, editor of the Srinagar-based daily Kashmir Images, said the conflict has drowned out issues of social importance as people tend to think they have to focus on the “bigger issues” of politics and conflict. “Crimes in society are being brushed under the carpet and it is becoming dangerous every passing day,” he said.

Manzar said by announcing they had caught the culprit, the police have “diffused emotions” and perhaps prevented the situation from escalating. But conscientious citizens, he said, must speak up. “This should open the eyes of all,” he added. “When it comes to violence against women, we are competing with mainland India and Pakistan. People have to come out to deal with this.”

Zaffar Iqbal of the Gujjar Bakarwal Students Conference, which organised some of the candlelight vigils and marches, complained that his community “has long been sidelined and ignored”. “Forget the national media, even the local papers [in Jammu] did not report the incident,” he added. “We are puppets, a vote bank for politicians.”

But now, boosted by social media and increasing education, the youth in Jammu region are going through a social awakening, said Rabiya Shafiq, a journalist and activist who led a small candlelight vigil for the murdered child in Rajouri district. “There is an awareness now and the youth want to take a stand,” she said. “The Constitution of India gives us that right and we have faith in the system.”

Nayeema Mehjoor, chairperson of the State Women’s Commission, said greater participation from civil society was needed to ensure a wider debate on crime, particularly against women. “There was always time to talk about social issues but we have brushed them aside,” she said. “We must leave the big issues to politicians and as citizens talk about these matters; the media has to talk about it. Our homes that were safe cocoons are no longer safe. We have to think about it.”